The most iconic image from Mad Men‘s ninth episode is of Betty Draper standing on her porch in her nightgown, a cigarette clenched between her teeth, an air rifle in hand, firing on her neighbor’s pet doves with a relaxed indifference for the man’s baffled protestations. It’s an important moment for Betty, the first time we’ve seen her pent-up frustrations and anxiety find any real expression besides trembling hands and rambling confessions to an uncaring psychiatrist.
In fact, “Shoot” is something of a turning point for Betty. Until now, her role in the show has been little more than a part of the scenery: The one left running the perfect little family in the suburbs that powerful ad man Don Draper returns to when he tires of power lunches and extramarital dalliances in Manhattan. Don treats her that way; the show has presented her that way; even Betty has been content to accept that role — or rather, not content, but determined, no matter how much emotional damage it does her.
In “Shoot,” she finally begins to awaken to the fact that being a wife and mother doesn’t necessarily require a woman to subsume her identity. She’s Mrs. Draper, yes, but she’s also Betty. The irony is that this realization dawns on her as a result of Don’s would-be boss treating her as an object — in this case, a bargaining chip. An executive at major real-world ad agency McCann Erickson tries to poach Don from the much smaller Sterling Cooper. You can see the gears turning in his mind as he spots Betty and discovers she used to be a model, offering her a chance on the spot to take part in a Coca-Cola ad shoot (metatextually referencing the until-now unstated fact that January Jones was clearly cast because she basically looks like Grace Kelly). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Betty is a picture-perfect vision of early ’60s beauty, but his promise to cut through the entire casting process and send her directly to the shoot clearly comes from a place of manipulation: Get to Don through Betty.
For his part, Don seems flattered by the attention and actively considers the move, much to Roger Sterling’s irritation. After all, the company has just fallen over itself to throw money at Don and ply him with flattery, and now just weeks later he’s contemplating jumping ship. (Not that he has any way to know that Don uncaringly gave away that entire bonus check to a woman he intended never to see again, knowing full well she’d possibly just blow it on drugs for her beatnik pals.) But whatever Don is contemplating behind his unreadable façade, the McCann executive makes his decision for him by sending over a stack of glossy color photos of Betty in the Coke ad. However much Don might like to work on a global account like Coca-Cola, he’s unimpressed with the use of his wife as a bargaining chip.
Well, probably. That’s certainly the narrative he uses to keep his job at Sterling Cooper, sowing some interesting seeds in the process: He insists on having no contract, and he tells Sterling, “If I leave, it’ll be to do something else.” Flashing forward five and a half seasons, now that Don actually has left — or rather, has been pushed out — it’ll be interesting to see if that holds true. In the here-and-now of Season One, though, he rebuffs his prospective employer by telling him that plying him through Betty, and specifically the implicit threat that Betty will lose out on a tremendous modeling contract if he doesn’t come over to McCann, was “hardly a big-league move.” Could it be that we’re finally seeing the ethical center of Don Draper?
Maybe… but then again, maybe not. It’s possible to read Don’s decision two ways: One, he was repulsed by the machinations of his would-be boss and didn’t feel comfortable working for someone who used wealth and power to twist people around. Given Don’s background and his contempt for the upper classes, that’s entirely possible. But there’s another way to interpret his decision, and it’s much less flattering. That is, two, he’s jealous and possessive of Betty’s possible return to modeling.
Don is ambivalent and disbelieving when she expresses her desire to get back into modeling, to the point that she has to remind him of her former career — “I did do some modeling, you know,” a mantra she repeats throughout the episode, almost like she’s trying to convince herself — even though that’s how they met in the first place. She tries to convince him a few modeling gigs won’t disrupt their lives, promising to continue preparing extravagant dinners like a good wife even if she’s off posing for the cameras, and his concession (“I can’t stop you from doing what you want to do”) is hardly the ringing endorsement of a man who stands behind his wife.
Significantly, Don makes his final decision regarding the McCann job as he pores over the sheaf of photos from the Coke shoot. Maybe he’s rankled by the brazen threat implicit in the portfolio, but then again maybe Jim Hobart is pushing the wrong buttons altogether. Maybe Don doesn’t want to share his wife with the world, and the prospect of her pretty face being splashed across magazine ads around the world presses the jealousy button. This is the man who became jealous over a television, after all, who gave up a massive check and walked away from a long-standing affair. And certainly that jealousy and possessiveness toward women is something we see from Don in later seasons; it’s impossible not to think that he would walk away from an incredible career move to a major firm simply to prevent having to share Betty in light of the way Megan’s television work caused him to literally walk away from their relationship. While Hobart meant his photo folio to say, “Look at the glamorous career your wife can have if you work with us,” it’s more likely Don reads it as, “If you take this job, you have to let Betty out of her little birdcage in the suburbs and let other men admire her beauty.”
Most likely Don’s decision was a combination of both: His disdain for wealthy corporate tyrants and his possessive jealousy over his wife. For Betty, it works out the same either way: She’s treated as a possession, a bargaining chip, a prize. But for the first time, she chafes at that life. Having been given a fresh taste of the career that family forced her away from, she reveals a spark in her eyes for the first time. She snaps at her therapist, calling him out for his lazy condescension after she reveals her suffocated aspirations for life and he simply rattles off lazy “tell me about your mother” platitudes. While’s she’s hilariously out-of-date in the modeling scene with her outmoded costumes that drip with 1950s opulence, she falls right into her role. And when she is turned away from the gig, she’s crushed, thinking it her own failing rather than simply a maneuver in a power game between the big men who run her world.
And so she takes out her frustrations on her neighbor’s doves, firing with abandon into the air. But of course she does: The man had threatened her children’s dog, and her home life is the one place she can exert any power. But Betty has a gun now, and the Betty we’ve seen to date — the one who sighs all day because she doesn’t know what to do without Don, the one who trembles and panics at the thought of being alone — is fading rapidly to be replaced by a Betty who demands to be respected as a human, not just the pretty doll that maintains Don’s home and family.
Since this is really the first episode of the show that doesn’t revolve around Don but rather uses the happenings in his life to help better define the supporting cast, it’s worth mentioning the B-plot, which features a similar revelation for Peggy Olson, who’s visibly gained weight of late. The junior executives snicker about it behind her back, while Joan Holloway chides her for it. They’re all operating under the dated and literally patronizing premise that the women of the steno pool exist as marriage fodder for the men at the company; Ken Cosgrove refers to her as a piece of fruit. But like Betty, Peggy has been awakened by her taste of career success. She has a goal in mind now that she’s realized her innate potential — to be an advertising copywriter — and for the first time talks down to Joan. And Joan doesn’t even fully realize it.
Meanwhile, Pete Campbell continues to wrestle with his secret attraction to Peggy, literally — he comes to blows with Cosgrove. He also immediately follows up public praise from both Sterling and Cooper with a cocky remark that earns him a quiet reprimand from Don, because it wouldn’t be Pete Campbell if he didn’t have that uncanny talent for plucking humiliation from the jaws of victory.